Bypass opponents study plans, await environmental assessment

Setup for a bottleneck? The Skanska-Branch diagram for the northern terminus of the Route 29 bypass show two lanes of northbound through traffic, instead of the three called for in an earlier VDOT concept plan—just one of several design elements opponents of the project say could slow traffic. Image by Aaron Shrewsbury.

After decades of controversy and an unexpected revival, the Route 29 bypass project hit a key milestone earlier this month with the Virginia Department of Transportation’s release of contractor Skanska-Branch’s detailed plans for the 6.2-mile route around the traffic-clogged arterial. And while the road is closer than it’s ever been to becoming a reality, bypass opponents are putting the plans under a microscope, and waiting for what may be a last chance to stall the project.

Jeff Werner, the Piedmont Environmental Council’s land-use field officer, has spent much of the last week-and-a-half poring over the plan, printing out and taping together the Skanska engineers’ detailed drawings of the road to get a better idea of what the project will look like.

A key concern is the northern terminus, he said, where the bypass will join up with Route 29 just south of Ashwood Boulevard and the Forest Lakes development. VDOT’s initial concept for a grade-separated interchange at the north end of the bypass, released in September of 2011, provided for more lanes of travel than the current plans, and that raises concerns of bottlenecks at one end of the roadway, Werner said.

The Skanska proposal provides two lanes for through traffic approaching the intersection from the south on Route 29, instead of three, as the original concept plans show. Vehicles exiting the bypass join northbound cars in a third lane, but the three abruptly become two north of a stoplight at Ashwood Boulevard. And the on-ramp for southbound bypass traffic is down to one lane instead of two.

“Given that saving time is the issue here, the question is, ‘What’s the clock running now for this trip?’” Werner said.

That concern and others will help fuel a continuing push to shift public opinion about the project, Werner added. But when it comes to a policy fight, opponents have only one real foothold: a pending environmental assessment.

Morgan Butler, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Charlottesville office, said it’s been 20 years since VDOT conducted an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, on the complete project —a thorough examination mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

Since the project roared back to life last summer, there’s been an expectation that VDOT will reevaluate all the documentation from the EIS, in a process called an Environmental Assessment, or EA. The agency will have to determine if its old data still applies, and make its case for carrying on to the Federal Highway Administration. If the review shows there are a lot of new factors affecting environmental impact of the road, it’s back to the drawing board for VDOT.

“If FHWA determines that to be the case—and we think it clearly is, considering how outdated parts of the earlier studies are and how much work the community has put into developing less damaging alternatives for improving 29—then the project cannot proceed until the new information is thoroughly analyzed and considered,” Butler said.

If there’s a true revisiting of the impact of the project, agencies will have to use a whole new set of metrics, said Butler. “A lot of what we know about the environmental impacts of a project like this has changed,” he said, including the compounding effects of urban sprawl on the environment and human health.

Butler was careful to point out that legal action from his group and its allies is far from a given. Opponents can’t raise their shovels until the EA currently underway is complete and the FHWA has given its opinion on whether or not the old data is acceptable, he said.
“It would be like grading a test before it’s been turned in,” he said.

VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter said there will be a public information session* once the EA is completed, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has indicated it will likely be in September.

In the meantime, many in Charlottesville will keep scrutinizing the plans, trying to make sense of the pages of maps and grade diagrams. To Werner, the picture that’s emerging is one of a project that’s going to cause more problems than it solves. But he’s worried the wheels of bureaucracy will keep grinding.

“You would hope people at the FHWA would say, ‘This isn’t a good way to spend $200 million in federal dollars, and we need to take a hard look at this,’” he said. “But on the other hand, there’s this tendency to say, ‘Well, they’ve checked off A through Z.’”
Whatever the outcome of the EA, Butler said a close to the seemingly endless controversy is probably near. “I think this whole saga is about to reach a critical stage,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to drag on for years and years.”

*This story originally reported that there would be a public hearing on the Environmental Assessment once it’s filed. VDOT actually plans to hold a public information session, not a hearing.

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